Avoid looking like a silly tourist with this essential guide to Japanese etiquette and customs.
It’s easy to travel to Japan without doing any prior research or knowing any Japanese – it’s likely that you won’t bump into anyone who’s fluent in English while you’re there, but you’ll still survive. However, when there’s so much to be gained from doing some simple homework beforehand, why not do it? The thing is; culture in Japan is really different. Just how different is going to depend on where you’re from, but if you haven’t spent time in any Asian countries before, you’re likely to be quite surprised at what you find once you step off the plane. For example: What do all of these buttons on the toilet do? Why do people keep yelling at me when I walk into shops? And where on earth are all the trash cans!?
With this introductory guide to Japanese etiquette, you’ll not only get a much better idea of the way things work in Japanese society, but you’ll also learn useful pointers for everyday situations as well as some interesting facts about general culture and customs. While Japan can seem a bit crazy through the eyes of a foreigner, you do have to remember that to the Japanese, this is their way of life. So instead of ignoring these manners and ‘ways of doing things’ (as strange as some of them may seem!), we encourage you to embrace them and keep them in mind when you’re out in public and in social situations.
Japan is a cash-based society.
If you’re from a country where you use a card to pay for everything, this is an important one. In Japan you’ll find that most shops won’t accept credit card, so you’ll need to have cash handy. Keep in mind that you’ll probably get a better rate when exchanging your local currency for Japanese Yen in your home country, so you might want to do this before you travel overseas. Once you’re in Japan, your best bet for withdrawing cash is from a ‘7 bank’ ATM at a 7-Eleven convenience store. Luckily, these stores are just about on every corner. Many Japanese banks still don’t accept international cards, so you might find that these ATMS are the only ones that will be compatible with your card.
Manners are of utmost importance.
Being polite goes a long way in Japan – we can’t emphasise this enough! Even as a foreigner, you should be aware of the most basic ways to show respect and express gratitude to others. Saying thank-you (‘arigatou gozaimasu’) and excuse me (‘sumimasen’), as well as learning how to bow is a great start. Bowing at someone might seem a bit strange at first, but this is the normal way to greet someone in Japan, and before long you’ll find that you won’t even notice yourself doing it anymore! A quick nod of your head will do – this is a fairly casual and informal greeting but it’s a great start. Do a bit of people-watching and you’ll start to get a better feeling for what kind of bow is appropriate in different situations.
NOTE: Don’t miss our Beginner Guide #3: A Basic Japanese Language Guide for more essential Japanese words and phrases!
Riding the train in Japan – be prepared!
Rail transport in Japan is famously efficient and you’ll want to utilise it! Trains generally never run more than a minute late, so make sure you’re on time. If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll also have to buy a ticket – hang onto it and whatever you do, don’t lose it! If you do, you won’t be able to exit the gate on your way out, so be prepared for a potentially confusing and frustrating experience as you try to explain this to the station attendant. During the mornings and evenings on weekdays, get ready for rush hour – you’ll have to stand on your feet and potentially get squished into a train carriage like a sardine in a can…
When you’re on the train, it’s considered rude to talk loudly or talk on the phone. Each carriage also has dedicated seats for elderly or pregnant passengers, so look out for these signs! If you’re female, you might want to avoid wearing a short skirt or dress – it’s not common, but occasionally women have been known to get ‘groped’ – generally by older men taking advantage of overcrowded carriages. It’s for this reason that some trains have ‘Ladies Only’ carriages – if you’re a guy, it’s also good to make sure you don’t accidentally get on one of these!
Another tip for ladies – avoid wearing low cut tops or see-through clothing, unless you’re interested in getting ogled at by every man on the train. They will really, really stare at your boobs. Don’t even try to engage in a staring contest – not only will you struggle to even bring their gaze up to your face in the first place, but you’ll also most definitely lose. And lastly, take hand sanitiser. It’s common knowledge that many Japanese men are very ‘forgetful’ when it comes to washing their hands after using the restroom!
NOTE: See our Intermediate Guide #2: Transport & Accommodation Guide for more useful tips on transport in Japan.
Out and about.
At some point in your Japan travels, (likely within the first few hours of your trip) you’ll find yourself being yelled at as you enter a store or business. This might seem alarming, but you’ll soon get used to it. The store attendants are simply welcoming you in a loud and very charismatic fashion! Another good thing to know is that it’s considered rude to eat food as you’re walking down the street or in general public. Drinking is slightly less frowned upon, but in more quiet or rural areas this is something you can get away with without being glared at.
Another thing you’re likely to notice almost instantly is a distinct lack of trash cans. Recycling is a big thing in Japan, so at some point you’re likely to stumble across a place to throw away bottles or cans, (sometimes vending machines will have bins), but you might struggle to find somewhere to put general rubbish. Our advice? Stash it in your bag until you get back to your hotel or find a general trash bin – these are usually found at big tourist areas near major attractions, or at parking areas or the airport, for example.
When it rains in Japan, you’re likely to notice a hilarious phenomenon – all of a sudden, every single person has an umbrella! Small, pocket-sized umbrellas that people keep in their bags are quite common, so there’s really no reason for people not to have one handy. You’ll definitely get stared at by people if you get caught in the rain without one – in fact, people might even feel bad and give you theirs! Luckily, most convenience stores do sell them. Make sure when you enter a store (or especially someone’s house) that you leave your umbrella at the door to avoid bringing water inside, as this is considered rude. There’s usually a rack provided, or sometimes stores will have a dispenser for long, skinny plastic bags so that you can take your umbrella with you.
When you’re in a busy mall, an airport or station, make sure to stick to the left side of the escalator. This might take a while to get accustomed to if you’re not used to living in a big city, but generally the right side is reserved for people wanting to move a bit faster, with people standing stationary on the left. Don’t stand on the right side or block it with your baggage!
NOTE: Sometimes, in different cities people will actually line up on the right side, so the opposite way around. We know that’s confusing… but just stick to the side that other people are standing on or if in doubt, just don’t stand directly in the middle!
There are a few useful things you might want to know before eating out in Japan. First things first, yes, you’re going to have to use chopsticks! Don’t be afraid – it’s super easy once you get the hang of it. It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t skewer food with your chopsticks or serve other people food with the ends you eat with. And whatever you do, don’t put them in your mouth and use them as walrus tusks and make funny faces!
When you first enter a Japanese restaurant, you might be asked if you want to sit in a smoking or non-smoking area – the waiting staff generally know how to ask this in English. Smoking in restaurants is normal, and sometimes the areas aren’t actually separated by a physical wall, they might just be two different sides of the restaurant.
Once you sit down you’ll be given a small white towel or ‘oshibori’. Use this to wipe your hands, (but not your face) and then place it neatly on the table out of the way. If you’re eating at a noodle restaurant, be prepared for lots of slurping noises from all around you!
When you’ve finished eating, don’t put your chopsticks in your bowl. Instead place them together on top of your dish, not directly pointing at a particular person. You don’t need to tip– don’t try and tip either – this will cause confusion and the cashier won’t accept it!
NOTE: See our Intermediate Guide #7: Your Ultimate Japanese Food Guide to learn more about Japanese cuisine!
Gift giving is a BIG thing in Japan.
If you’re visiting someone and want to make a good impression, bringing a small gift, (especially something from your home country) will make a huge difference. This is called ‘omiyage’. Don’t bring something too extravagant as otherwise the receiver will feel embarrassed, especially if they don’t have something to give you in return. Food items like sweets, or stickers (if you have your own blog or brand) always go down a treat!
Japanese people generally have two names, a given name and a surname, and they are usually pronounced with the surname first. In Japanese culture it’s normal to refer to people by their surname, followed by the title ‘-san’. Think of this as the equivalent of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ In most situations, you shouldn’t refer to someone by their first name and you shouldn’t skip the ‘-san’ off the end, especially if you’re speaking to someone who is older than you, but with close friends and in very casual situations, this is okay. Note that you should never use the title ‘-san’ when referring to yourself.
Don’t use the word ‘Jap’.
There’s nothing more cringeworthy than a large, white foreigner in Japan talking loudly about ‘the Japs’. Some people might not actually realise that this word became a derogatory term during World War II to describe those of Japanese descent, instead thinking that it’s simply an acceptable abbreviation of the word ‘Japanese’. Even though the war has long passed, this word does still have negative connotations and by many is still considered an ethnic slur. So, to avoid the risk of sounding ignorant or rude, just don’t use it. Instead, say ‘the Japanese’ or ‘Japanese people’.
You’ve seen Tokyo Drift – they’re a real thing! In Japan you’re basically committing a crime against the nation if you wear shoes inside. We’re just kidding – you won’t always have to take your shoes off; some restaurants are cool with shoes and most stores wouldn’t ask you to do this – although you do have to take them off if you’re trying on clothes in a changing room. However, some more traditional restaurants, people’s homes and at traditional Japanese hotels known as ‘ryokan’ you will have to remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers instead. The best way to avoid a shoe-wearing faux pas is when you enter any premises, look around for an area where shoes are kept – this area actually has its own name, it‘s called a ‘genkan’ – it’s usually a step below the entrance.
Once you’ve removed your shoes, put them in the designated area – there might be a cupboard, baskets or a rack where shoes can be stored. Often there are cupboards with little wooden keys like in the above picture; simply take the key out to lock your shoes in there and bring it back with you afterwards. If there are slippers, put these on! If you don’t see any slippers, you’ll have to assume that just socks are okay. It’s for this reason that it’s always a good idea to have a spare pair of socks handy in Japan! Bare feet are a no-go. If you’re wearing slippers inside, keep in mind that these aren’t to be worn on woven ‘tatami’ mats. There are usually also separate slippers designated for wearing in the toilet – don’t get these mixed up.
Most people think of technology when they think of Japan. But Japan’s greatest technology marvel has to be their incredible toilets! Don’t be afraid to get in there and try all the different buttons – it’s all part of the experience! The toilets seats are generally warmed, they make noise and sometimes even sing songs, and then there’s all the ‘bidet’ options…
In some establishments, especially in more traditional buildings or less-touristy places, you might also come across a Japanese-style toilet. Again, don’t be scared! Yes, you will have to squat over it and this does take some getting used to (there is a technique to it!) but it’s also supposed to be ‘healthier’ for you to do your business this way!
Tattoos are very uncommon in Japan. This is mainly because they were (and still are) traditionally worn by gang members. You will see some younger people in Japan with them, but they are still very frowned upon in Japanese society. If you’ve got prominent body tattoos, you’re still fine to have these out in the open when you’re sightseeing around Japan, although you might get a few suspicious glances from some older folk. But if you were planning on meeting someone older or in a professional setting and you want to make a good impression, you would be wise to cover them up. They’re also not permitted in public baths or ‘onsen’.
Other general advice.
Try to avoid blowing your nose in public. And don’t even think about using a handkerchief – you’ll be given the mad stink eye! Smoking in public is also frowned upon, especially in heavily populated areas. Look for a designated smoking area – you’ll usually find one near a train station or convenience store. And when given your change, don’t recount it in front of the cashier – this is why they count it out in front of you before they hand it to you.
It might seem silly, but making an effort can go a long way…
If you’re from a multicultural country, it might shock you to find out just how ‘Japanese’ Japan is. As a foreigner you are going to stand out, and you’ll find that some Japanese people will be shy around you, or some might even take a keen interest in you. It might sound crazy, but many Japanese people haven’t spent a lot of time around foreign people and they might be unsure of how to act around you! You’ll also find a bit of prejudice going on with some older folk – most of the time they aren’t actually extreme racists – they’re usually just being old fashioned and are wary of foreigners as they find them noisy and unpredictable.
The most important thing to remember is that every person is different. You’ll meet a lot of people in Japan who have their own style and have a very modern way of thinking. By using manners and making an effort to take an interest in Japanese culture, you’re contributing to a positive image of westerners in Japan, and dispelling rumours of foreigners being rude and ignorant. It might sound harsh, but it’s true!